Monday, April 22, 2013

Teaching moments

We found out about the bombing of the Boston Marathon during my "Exploring Religious Ethics" class last week. A student whose twin brother lives in Boston received a text from his mother - something to the effect of "bombs exploding, don't go outdoors!" - so we were able to follow the aftermath live. (Actually, I had the class keep to the scheduled discussions and activities, but made it my job to check the New York Times on line for news.) We didn't talk about it much, it was too fresh... But the one-week anniversary fell during class today, and we shared the minute of silence in Boston and elsewhere.*

*Actually, 4:09:43 was the wrong time. It was on the front page of the New York Times website, but marked the marathon's official time. The bombs exploded at 2:49 EST.

We had a relatively open class as there was a paper due today. (I never assign readings on days when work is due.) I offered the students a bunch of things we might do, including the minute of silence at 4:09* - if we also talked a little about why people do minutes of silence. Then we might talk about their papers, about the bodhisattva vow (the topic of the week's reading), and at the end we'd do a brief guided tonglen meditation with Pema Chödrön. Yes to the minute of silence, they said, and the discussion. I had to cut the discussion off after half an hour, so much, it turned out, was there to say.

I expected appreciation of collective stillness as well as worry over cheap tokens of obligatory feeling, but most of the discussion was provoked by one student's complaint that we are culpably selective in the things we have minutes of silence for. What about the epidemic of rape in South Africa, he asked? When society doesn't mark the suffering of people like you but asks you to mark the suffering of others, something's deeply wrong. What was interesting in his question was his assumption that minutes of silence are powerful, that they do something. That's why it's so unfair that we don't have silences for the victims of attacks on markets, cafes, etc. in Iraq, Syria, etc. - or for the victims of endemic cultures of violence back home either: the energy of our silences is being forcibly coopted. Besides, there aren't seconds enough in the day to commemorate all the suffering and injustice worthy of witness.

This led to interesting consideration of the limits of sympathy, which I tried to turn in a Buddhist-Humeian direction. Sympathy does not, by its nature, extend very far beyond our familiars (quite possible I was channeling Makransky, too). What should do we do about that? We could condemn sympathy as inevitably partial, self-serving, delusory and even false (it flips into us-them, turning into its opposite). Or we could recognize it as something we are naive to rely on in its natural form; it's something chauvinists and "the media" can easily manipulate - but maybe it's also something we can and should work on, work with. No big surprise: I was pushing for the last of these.

I recalled our encounter with metta meditation, which takes self-concern as a point of departure for ethics rather than its nemesis. We can stretch self-concern into ethics if we allow our wish that we be safe, healthy and happy to extend to others; indeed, given the right kind of opportunity, it goes there by itself. The problem is that such opportunities are so rare; the sisyphean feat of maintaining a sense of an enduring self is compounded by late capitalist logics of precarity and competition to make them almost miraculous in their rarity. But aren't commemorative moments of silence among these rare moments? At least a few students still thought so...


Our discussion touched also on why we commemorate anniversaries - why the same hour and minute as the disaster? Is it the moment of tragedy or the moment before it, before anyone knew that the normal and everyday was about to be shattered forever? I told them about the Oklahoma City National Memorial, a reflecting pool framed by two large gateways numbered for the minute before and the minute after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in 1995. The reflections make the gateways into windows into the eternity framing our world. And in the middle the time we could not stop is frozen as space, gathered as a resource for resolve in making the world safer or at least more compassionate.

But it doesn't take a Buddhist to see that we can't, most of us most of the time, live with that awareness of the fragility of our existence. The sympathy-shocked confrontation with the vulnerability we share with other sentient beings is one from which we usually flee. Our moments of silence hope to be inoculations as well as commemorations. Perhaps they flip so easily into their opposites - like the hysterical demonization of the Tsarnaev brothers - because we know we can never be safe from suffering and contingency, and run screaming from that awareness. (Don't get me started on "evil"!)

We had to spend some time on bodhisattva vows, but then turned to a video of Pema Chödrön for the class' last half hour. Tonglen, "exchanging self for other," is a primarily Tibetan form of meditation in which suffering is central. Instead of fleeing pain and grief and anger and fear - in ourselves or in others - we use our own suffering to welcome in the suffering of others, sending back peace or healing. (As others' pain is breathed and our good wishes are breathed out, Pema Chödrön explains, it turns poisons into medicines.) It's powerful stuff - I have a 20-minute tonglen meditation of hers on CD which I wasn't able to complete, so choked up did I get over a sick friend's fear of death - so we did a very brief one, perhaps only 2 minutes long. This produced not conversation but a strong, tender silence. Concern for tokenism or favoritism evaporated. Our silence was energy.

One of the texts we discussed in connection with the bodhisattva vow (bodhisattvas are saints of tonglen) was by Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche. It says in part: In taking the Bodhisattva Vow, we acknowledge that the world around us is workable. From the bodhisattva's point of view it is not a hard-core, incorrigible world. It can be worked with within the inspiration of the buddha-dharma, following the example of Lord Buddha and the great bodhisattvas. We can join their campaign to work with sentient beings properly, fully, and thoroughly—without grasping, without confusion, and without aggression. 

Between our two moments of stillness, amorphous and intentional, we may have experienced the workability of the world, at least a little.

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